The significance of the decision to let Murdoch have his wicked way with the fair maiden BSkyB is the way coalition pretensions have been skewered in broad daylight
Before we get too horrified over the spectacle of Rupert Murdoch getting his wicked way with the fair maiden BSkyB, it is important to get things in perspective and remember that he will be 80 next week. So he will soon be dead. The real damage is to David Cameron, Vince (remember him?) Cable and the coalition.
I have nothing personal against the old ruffian, though he has contributed greatly to the coarsening of public life both in Britain through his tabloids and in the United States, notably via Fox News. Other places too, I expect, but I am less able to judge.
But when Murdoch dies, the global media empire he has put together with such tenacity – we must all hope he feels it has been worthwhile when his “Rosebud” moment comes – will start to decay with him.
His children may all be hardworking and talented – it helps to have a few million from Dad to start with – but they are not as clever as Dad. Mathematicians call it “regression to the norm”.
So the significance of this morning’s confirmation that the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, (Berkeley Hunt, in Hugh Muir‘s joke) is to accept Murdoch’s offer to hive off Sky News in the interest of media diversity is not in the details of the deal. It is the way coalition pretensions have been skewered in broad daylight.
The Guardian’s Nils Pratley today reminds readers that the price should be nearer £10 a share than the likely 750p to 800p BSkyB shareholders will get. It’s not a done deal, but soaring profits from subscriptions have made the original 700p offer look ropey.
No surprise there then, as Pratley suggests the independent directors have a chance to prove they are not a pushover. Don’t hold your breath. “Independent” and “Murdoch” are nor words that sit happily together.
Who says so? Well, Andrew Neil for a start. Neil is a former Sunday Times editor and, I think, first chairman of Sky TV, a clever fellow who has since re-invented himself, as did his great Sunday Times predecessor, Harry Evans.
Both have written memoirs exposing the hollowness of Murdoch assurances in respect of independent directors at the Times and elsewhere in Rupert’s long career. He’s been stitching people up for 50 years, starting in small-time Australia, moving through the News of the World (“Mummy told me never to resign,” said his first betrayed editor) and the famous Times/Sunday Times acquisition (1981) which Margaret Thatcher got through.
As he had been in London, he was initially patronised in New York and Washington, but outfoxed business and political foes there too. Even at the Wall St Journal – which Murdoch took over in 2007 over after courting the previous owners with pompous assurances – they have already proved “wholly useless”, Neil said on Radio 4’s Today programme.
He also likened Rupert to a killer whale, albeit a rather elderly one these days, one who has not lost his taste for blood. “When it comes to doing deals, Mr Murdoch is an Italian. The real negotiations begin after you’ve signed the deal.”
Much talking will have to be done to hammer out the how Sky News will be managed and financed – this to sustain the notion that Britain has three TV news networks, a revived ITV (surging profits announced last night), the mighty BBC and Sky, a minnow in terms of viewers, but politically important. But it’s a detail.
No, I come back to my original point. Whatever the commercial case for letting News Corporation buy the 60% of BSkyB it doesn’t already own – thereby greatly boosting the balance sheet of the 13th most powerful man in the world (the verdict of fawning Forbes magazine) – it shows David Cameron in a craven light.
At the very least, ministers had to be seen to be going through the motions of competition policy in a rigorous way. The rest of the media fear Murdoch, who has been a ruthless exploiter of whatever dominant position he has ever acquired – not least by the price-war he directed against the Daily Telegraph for years. It failed but, as in so much else, did much harm.
As business secretary, Vince Cable was well placed to hold Murdoch to rigorous standards. But, as we all know, the Telegraph stitched him up in a honeytrap exercise – immoral entrapment, says me – by sending young women reporters to his constituency surgery to flatter the old boy into being rude about the Tories.
The idea was to damage the Lib Dems and thereby weaken their place in the coalition. Alas, in suppressing the real story – silly Vince’s boast about being “at war” with Murdoch – until it was leaked to the BBC’s Robert Peston – the Torygraph shot itself in the foot.
Like the Mail and Guardian, it opposed the BSkyB bid on pluralism grounds but landed them all with Hunt, who was much more sympathetic.
So everybody loses, including Hunt. Cameron looks shabby and expedient – Tony Blair never went this far – and the Lib Dems are stuck with evidence of their own impotence.
As for BSkyB subscribers and Premier League football fans, watch out, mateys! Rupert is on your case with enhanced powers. Fortunately he was born on 11 March 1931, so the referee is looking at his watch.
When the whistle blows I wonder if Murdoch, whose rare media interviews reveal impressive and self-pitying banality, will pause and wonder if it was all worth it. Should he have found time during a long, busy life to read a book?